UN Rapporteur: Is Malaysia a civilized nation?


What are the characteristics of a civilized nation? Is Malaysia a civilized nation? These 2 questions remain with me well after I left a 2 hour public forum at the Bar Council yesterday at which I heard Maina Kiai, the United Nations Rapporteur for the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, and several others speak about freedom of association and assembly.

Maina, a Kenyan with degrees from Nairobi and Harvard, used the words “civilized” and “civilization” often during his 30 minute address. He applauded the economic progress of Malaysia, emphasizing his sense of awe after a visit to the Petronas Twin Towers.
If the measure of progress in civilization is the magnificence of our finest building, then we are doing very well. But is that an adequate measure of civilization?
Characteristics of a civilized nation
Maina spoke passionately about human rights and democracy. He spoke for the United Nations, as one familiar with international law. I walked away with 7 key thoughts.
1. Presumption of right to association, not restrictions upon association. Maina says the measure of a civilization is not it’s ability to tolerate democracy, but it’s ability to thrive upon democracy, to cherish and to protect democracy. For Maina, a nation can claim to be civilized only if it’s rulers, it’s citizens and it’s laws presume (“automatically grant”) the right to association, not restrictions upon association.
2. Freedom of association is a benefit, not a threat. Maina says a civilized society doesn’t view freedom of association as a threat; rather it views freedom of association as a benefit and works hard to to facilitate association and assembly. Maina defines “assembly” as “an intentional and temporary gathering,” including the right to march.
3. The state is responsible for dealing with commotion-creators. An unavoidable feature of life in society is the presence and emergence of persons who will create commotions or disruptions: the state must restrain them through effective policing. Maina says a civilized government considers itself duty-bound to deal with persons who create commotions during protests. Allowing people to vent safely helps insure security and helps discourage them from seeking uncivilized forms of dialogue.
4. The state facilitates expressions of conflicting rights. Maina takes seriously the rights of everyone, e.g. shopkeepers and drivers. He says a shopkeeper’s right to commerce is just as much a right as his customer’s right to vent; good rulers will strive to keep a balance between the rights of those with different interests: by facilitating conflicting rights, not by curbing or stifling those who support contrary views.
5. Accepting the inevitability of counter-demonstrations. Maina says it is the duty of rulers and the police to recognize that counter-demonstrations are likely, and that it is the duty of the state to define and enforce measures to avoid confrontation – which they can do by keeping potential trouble makers away: allowing them another time or space to vent, thereby minimizing violations of law and order.
6. Limiting the responsibility of organizers. Maina shares a belief which is deeply held amongst those who believe government’s listen best when people protest visibly – just as our forefathers did in the 40’s and 50’s to evict the British. Maina says making the organizers of assemblies and marches responsible for the actions of individuals “is wrong and uncivilized,” since policing is the state’s responsibility. He holds up South Africa as a country which does this very well.
7. Foreign funding is a non-issue. On the subject of funding by foreigners, Maina asks: if a government can obtain foreign funds to develop the country, if private corporations can obtain foreign funds to invest in Malaysia, why should anyone who obtains foreign funds to exercise democratic rights be viewed unfavourably?
The erudite Maina left us with an implied question: if we review our government’s approach to freedom of association and assembly, will we conclude we are civilized?
Datuk Baljit Singh Sidhu: moronic, flawed law
Maina was followed by Datuk Baljit Singh Sidhu who reviewed key aspects of the act which I have previously called ROFA (Restrictions on Freedom of Assembly). Baljit, a senior Malaysian lawyer, compares the need for freedom of association and assembly with the relief valve on a pressure cooker. He says assembly is like the relief valve – it allows a controlled release of pressure, thus reducing internal tension, while at the same time revealing the nature and extent of the tension.
It was evident that the meeting was a relief valve for Baljit to display and release his internal tensions over the law. For Baljit, the only label that fits the law is “moronic.”
Baljit’s key points are that the law proves those who rule us think “human rights” means “problem,” and that those who made the law fail to understand that Human Rights is a journey, not a destination. He pointed out several flaws in ROFA, including: